A philosophy grounded not in a transcendent divinity, afterlife, or individualism, but in a rooted communal life.
Western philosophers have long claimed that God, if such a being exists, is a personal force capable of reason, and that the path to a good human life is also the path to a happy one. But what if these claims prove false, or at least deeply misleading? The Aztecs of central Mexico had a rich philosophical tradition, recorded in Latin script by Spanish clergymen and passed down for centuries in the native Nahuatl language—one of the earliest transcripts being the Huehuetlatolli, or Discourses of the Elders, compiled by Friar Andrés de Olmos circa 1535.
Novel in its form, the Discourses consists of short conversations between elders and young people on how to achieve a meaningful and morally sound life. The Aztecs had a metaphysical tradition but no concept of “being.” They considered the mind an embodied force, present not just in the brain but throughout the body. Their core values relied on collective responsibility and group wisdom, not individual thought and action, orienting life around one’s actions in this realm rather than an afterlife, distinctly opposed to the Christian beliefs that permeate Europe and America.
Sebastian Purcell’s fluency in his grandmother’s native Nahuatl brings to light the Aztec ethical landscape in brilliant clarity. Never before translated into English in its entirety, and one of the earliest post-contact texts ever recorded, Discourses of the Elders reflects the wisdom communicated by oral tradition and proves that philosophy can be active, communal, and grounded not in a “pursuit of happiness” but rather the pursuit of a meaningful life.
About the Author
Sebastian Purcell is an associate professor of philosophy at SUNY-Cortland, where he researches mathematical logic, ethics, and Latin American philosophy. He lives in Binghamton, New York.
Purcell’s rare skill set as a scholar of both philosophy and the Aztec language of Nahuatl allows him to make a dramatically original contribution to our grasp of how the Aztecs viewed self, life, and the world. Discourses of the Elders will not only change how you see Aztec culture: it may also change how you see our culture.
— Matthew Restall, author of When Montezuma Met Cortés
Prepare to have your philosophical imagination rocked. Purcell is a magnificent guide and beautiful translator of these profound and long-silenced texts. Purcell shares a dazzlingly fresh take on universal themes of the human condition which feel surprisingly modern. Discourses of the Elders is bursting with practical wisdom about looking for meaning and beauty in life, living virtuously, being happy, and finding a sense of rootedness amid entropy, with applications from raising children to leading excellently to aesthetics and urban planning, and so much more.
— Skye C. Cleary, author of How to Be Authentic
The goal of integrating Mesoamerican thought into the history of philosophy is brought much closer thanks to this new translation. The English version is readable and makes the general philosophical interest of the text clear, while preserving such culturally specific features as the evocative metaphors used to express ethical concepts. Detailed notes and a useful introduction help to make the work accessible and comprehensible to a wide audience.
— Peter Adamson, author of Don't Think For Yourself
Effectively explaining the highly abstract and metaphorical writing of the Nahuatl language, Sebastian Purcell handles very well the interpretation of the difrasismos that is fundamental to understanding the philosophy and poetry of the Aztecs. Discourses of the Elders allows the Aztecs to speak for themselves.
— Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, author of Handbook to Life in the Aztec World
A strong contribution to our understanding of an important tradition of Indigenous ethics.